In a previous post, we discussed the pros and cons of using an outline to guide your writing process. After some consideration, you’ve decided to use an outline as you write your very first thriller. Good for you! But now that you’ve decided to outline your novel, how exactly do you go about it? While there is no single prescribed method for outlining stories, most contain a few basic components. Let’s look at how you can outline your next thriller following a simple 5-step process.
Step One: Expand the Premise
The first thing writers need to do when developing their outline is to expand the premise. We’ve discussed premise here before. A premise is the basic idea of your story, and a premise line is a clear description of the succinct journey your story will take. Before you move ay further in your outline, you must first develop your premise. Once you do so, expand the premise further into a premise line.
Understanding the purpose of the premise line may help you in writing one. In your mind’s eye, what direction do you intend your story to take from beginning to end? Having an effective premise line that you’re fully invested in will help you outline the other components of the story, like the characters, setting, and plot; it will also enhance your confidence and enthusiasm when it comes time to actually write it.
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Step Two: Develop the Setting and Characters
Once you have expanded your premise, it is time to outline two other important components of your story: the setting and the main characters.
The setting frequently plays a critical role in a story. A setting will often be the rationale for characters’ actions or motivations. For example Dennis Lehane’s thriller Gone Baby Gone takes place in the south side of Boston. The depressed, impoverished setting provides many opportunities for police, working-class private detectives, and criminals to all intermingle in a way that would not be feasible in other cities. Fleshing out your setting will also help you better understand your story’s characters.
When you wrote your premise line in the previous step, you identified the two types of characters that are going to drive your story: the protagonist and the antagonist, or antagonistic forces, whose struggle is going to form the basis of your thriller’s conflict. Now is the time to flesh these characters out. Use this opportunity to briefly summarize the character’s backstory, motivations, even their personal appearances. It may help to sketch or cut out pictures that remind you of your main characters, so you can visualize them better.
Step Three: Map Out the Plot
Step three is really the “bread and butter” of outlining. During step three, you will map out the bones of your plot. Determine what scenes have to occur and in what order, so that you can advance your story from the introduction all the way to the resolution.
Some people prefer to develop the plot map on a linear timeline, literally mapped out on a dry erase board; others just jot down descriptive names of scenes in the order they intend them to occur. The sequential list of descriptive scene names is sometimes called a “beat sheet.” The plot map is complete when you have determined all of the scenes you need to drive your story. You should also have the locations of key scenes, such as pinch and plot points, annotated as well.
Step Four: Flesh out the Map
In step three, you tersely mapped out your story’s plot from beginning to end. Now that you have determined all of the scenes you need to advance your plot, take the time to further develop them. You should write a quick summary of what you expect to happen in each scene. You should also determine how to transition from one critical scene to another as well.
Step Five: Connect the Dots
The final step of outlining is to take a slight step back, synthesize all of the work you’ve done, and get ready to write. Make sure that everything in the outline works. Are the plot points and pitch points effective? Do the characters all work? Do their actions at critical points in the plot make sense? Are the planned scenes sufficient to advance the story, or will you need more or less of them? If there are issues or gaps with the outline at this point, now is the time to address them; you’ll thank yourself later, when you actually sit down to write the story.
Once you are satisfied that the outline is complete, go ahead and start writing your first draft.
There is no single right way to outline a story. Writers use a variety of methods to map out how they want to develop the characters, settings, and plot in their novels. However, the five steps outlined here can be helpful if you are considering using an outline for the first time. As you become more experienced with writing, you will likely develop new techniques to help guide your story development. When you find a method that works for you, make sure you pass it forward, and share it with fellow aspiring authors. Good luck, and happy writing!